By SAM LITVIN
For two and a half years, I lived in Israel attending Kellogg Recanati business school at Tel Aviv University. At the end of the stay, my views on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict changed — I became convinced that the way things are in the Middle East is a stalemate by design.
I am a Jew and my colleagues and classmates included Israelis, Americans, Europeans, Asians and Palestinians. One of my Palestinian classmates was born in a well-to-do and influential family. He showed me around Palestine, introduced me to his friends and family, and invited me to his wedding.
During my trip, I saw wealthy Palestinians who controlled the entire country, benefiting from the occupation. I met founders of the BDS movement, visited the Arafat museum, went to a music festival and went dancing at bars. I saw lavish residences as well as refugee camps, where Palestinian refugees are forced to live by the Palestinian government 73 years after they fled their homes. I saw complete erasure of Jewish history and misrepresentation of Jewish connection to the land to create a narrative that blamed Jews for the problems in the West Bank.
The stalemate was beneficial to the past administration of Israel, leadership of Palestine, and other interested parties like the EU and the U.S. I thought I alone had these opinions — until I watched a streamed talk given by a Palestinian journalist and human rights activist, who spoke at the Del Cero Temple Emanu-El in July of this year.
I heard of Bassem Eid through social media. He is an elder Palestinian ex-refugee, known for saying things one would not expect a Palestinian to say. He is pro-Israel and pro-Palestine who feels free to criticize Israeli and Palestinian leadership.
I was excited to hear him in person when I found out that he would be coming to San Diego, because it is one thing to have a theory after visiting a place for a few days, and another to have someone who lived there their entire life confirm the theory. Bassem Eid, was born in a refugee camp in Jordanian-occupied Jerusalem. After Israel’s liberation/occupation of Jerusalem (depending on the viewpoint), he moved to Israel where he became a B’Tselem researcher (a Jewish Israeli human rights organization monitoring Israeli actions in Palestine).
After experiencing human rights abuses by the Palestinian Authority, being himself arrested in 1997 for criticizing the regime, he founded the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, which monitored corruption and abuse of Palestinians by Palestinians. His organization was closed in 2011 when European Union decided to move funding away from organizations that monitored Palestinian corruption to organizations that focus only on documenting Israeli misconduct. Since then, he has published in numerous publications and appeared around the world and has been recognized by left-leaning and right-leaning human rights organizations for his outspoken and taboo-breaking speeches and investigations.
Eid was in the United States in July to film a video for Prager University (a right-leaning media organization) in Los Angeles. He was invited to come and speak in San Diego by the Israel American Council which provides the San Diego Israeli families with various programming opportunities. IAC sponsored his talk in San Diego along with Stand With Us, a right-leaning Israel advocacy group. The two groups introduced him along with a Jewish representative of San Diego State University to speak to the San Diego community about the Israel-Palestinian conflict after an especially tense outbreak that spilled over into the United States with mass rallies and mass increase in antisemitic outbreaks. These incidents included attacks on Jewish students and institutions at San Diego State University.
Eid is an unusual Palestinian not just for being a vocal critic of Mahmoud Abbas, the Prime Minister of Palestinian Authority since 2005 (date of the last election in Palestine), Hamas, as well as policies of Israel, European Union and the United States. This is because he sees all of them upholding the status quo. He points out that the Palestinians alter the narrative by claiming falsely that the British brought the Jews to steal their land and that Jews attacked Palestinians. This enables the status quo by creating a victim mentality that demands action from Israel, not Palestine. I saw first-hand how the Jewish continuous life in Israel and their roots are also routinely erased, with museums always describing the age of Israel and Judean kingdoms as the “Bronze Age.”
Actions like this maintain the appearance of the embattled Palestinian leadership and aggressive Israel, although conflicts are nearly always started and instigated by Palestinian groups, especially at times of possible inflection points, like peace talks or possible change of leadership that might end the occupation.
A new perspective that Eid offered for me was when he said: “What president Biden doesn’t understand is we the Palestinians are not interested in a two-state solution. We the Palestinians are much more interested in a three-state solution for two people.” He explained that because of Islamist Hamas in Gaza, many Palestinians prefer a three-state solution, which has existed for the past 12 years, ever since Hamas took over the narrow strip in a violent civil war.
This rang true with my experience as my Palestinian friend wanted a one state-solution, a combined Israel and Palestine, while his wife was interested in two separate states. Thus there is no one singular desire for a specific solution among Palestinians, and to force one of them would be wrong.
Eid aligned with my view that that the reason for the conflict is because the current status quo benefits Hamas in Gaza and Abbas in West Bank because entrenched corruption is highly profitable to those in power. It is to the benefit of Abbas to continue the conflict and thus the occupation, which comes with the benefit of large aid packages from the EU and other neighboring states.
“Because Hamas is building their own Islamic Emirate in the Gaza Strip. Abbas is building his own empire in the West Bank. This is how we are living in the past 12 years,” Eid said.
Eid’s evidence for this was the current dispute between Fatah and Hamas about who should rebuild Gaza after the last conflict. The group that claims responsibility for rebuilding would be the recipient of the funds. Eid feels that the prospect of funds being used to rebuild is very low because “houses demolished in 2014 were never rebuilt” despite the considerable funds sent by the UN, Qatar, U.S. and EU. His strong criticism for the status quo was for EU saying, “the Europeans have no problem to rebuild Gaza every day.”
I believe that the past Israeli administration also benefited from conflict, as conflict always benefits an authoritarian administration. This criticism was not in Eid’s speech, perhaps because that administration was voted out and a new one that includes Arab lawmakers is now in power.
Eid acknowledged that things are changing.
“Arabs are almost fed up with the Palestinians when four different Arab countries signed the Abraham accords. They are fed up with Palestinians. Abbas prefers to be stateless because when you are stateless you can guarantee that at the month you had hundreds of millions of dollars. But Palestinian people never get the benefit of the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Eid explained and placed the some responsibility for the situation in part with his own people saying: “That is one of the tragedies of Palestinian people — we don’t know how to deal with the international community and how to stop the financial support of the international community in our corrupt leadership.”
Eid did not absolve the U.S. from the conflict, stating that the Arab world is full of dictators who are in power for decades through the financial support of the world powers because “you [Americans] believe in dictatorship because only with dictatorship leaders you can implement your political agenda.”
These views have made Bassem Eid popular in the Jewish and Israeli press, but unpopular in Europe where he is now rarely invited. He is also rarely invited to pro-Palestine gatherings where he is seen as a paid informant of a pro-Israel lobby.
But even the Israel lobby has its limit. The well-attended speech was not widely publicized on any of the San Diego Jewish publications with exception of L’Chaim Magazine, which posted a link to the speech without description or commentary. Stand With Us sent out a brief mention and a link to the talk in its newsletter, no distribution after the event was made on the Stand With US, IAC, or Temple Emanu-El website or social media. This is a very muted response from the community for such a pro-Israel and Palestine speaker. My guess is that a critical view of the United States is something that right-leaning organizations like IAC and Stand With Us try to avoid.
In the end, Eid showed that black or white, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, Israeli or Palestinian, these are false two-solution dichotomies presented by those who profit from the fight. My hope is that Bassem Eid and I are not the only ones who see the wealthy and powerful taking advantage of poor Palestinians. My hope is that we are not the only ones who see that peace can only come when we see more than two teams fighting with stakeholders who profit from the war. As he speaks out, perhaps all people interested in peace can come together to end the violence and finally work towards peace, not a win.
— Sam Litvin was born in Soviet Union and grew up in San Diego. In 2012, he travelled the world photographing Jewish communities publishing a book called “Your Story Our Sipur.” Today he continues to write about Israel and Judaism. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.